Saturday, September 19, 2020

Intuitive Themes in Novels

Most novels have an easily understood point to make to the reader. Do stories ever have a more subtle or intuitive theme?

Actually, this is a hard question to answer.

To intuit is "to know, sense, or understand by intuition" (Merriam Webster definition). Intuition is what we understand, often unconsciously, about any situation. A condition usually based on our previous experiences, our senses, and our primal instincts. In writing, if used intentionally, it is good because the author involves the reader on different levels of perception. But it might be unconsciously used with unexpected results and the reader can sometimes perceive themes in writing that the author never intended. Words and minds are tricky things.

Since every word can give slightly different meanings and connotations, it shows how the author's intent in using certain words can sometimes differ dramatically from how a reader understands them.

When might it be a conscious choice by the author? An aware author can use situations that leave the reader to decide what the character felt beyond the obvious action. When a reader encounters a situation they have experienced, either emotionally or physically, then they intuitively know the cause for the character's reaction. 

This often happens when the author uses a show rather than tell method. Showing usually involves the use of description especially in a character's actions and expressions, leaving it to the reader to share the character’s reaction from their personal understanding. The reader's perception might be very emotional, especially if they have experienced the same or similar situations. This often happens in emotional scenes, so most writing probably has intuitive emotional themes.

The opposite can happen, too, from both author’s and the reader’s perspectives. An author might unintentionally insert oblique messages, and since we all experience life differently, we all have a slightly different understanding of what is happening. The reader might also have had a very different reaction to an experience, meaning their understanding of the scene might differ from what the author intended.

We often use gut instinct for insight. Intuitive means a reader can understand without a lot of explanation from the author because the situation or emotions are so familiar. They don't have to think about the meaning. They know it. While these subtle reactions might be unacknowledged, they still have an impact on the reader.

My guess is I’ve used intuitive writing and that most authors have also used it, especially since one goal of fiction writing is to engage the reader’s emotions.

Please visit the following blogs for other takes on this topic.


  1. "the reader can sometimes perceive themes in writing that the author never intended."
    Rhobin, I have an amusing example of this. My novel, "Sleeper, Awake" is set in a future where men's motivation is entirely directed toward pleasing women. And yet, one female reader thought the book was sexist because a major female character's surname is "Ramirez."


  2. Hi Rhobin, thanks for another great topic to discuss. I started by writing plays and was always taken by surprise when I saw the Director's take on them. It's a humbling experience to realise your own interpretation is not the only one. anne

  3. Love your point that SHOW Vs TELL can make a huge difference. If we tell the reader something like John was angry that might be part of the theme but there's no room for interpretation. But there's also no drawing the reader in to experience the anger. Yet if John puts his fist through the wall and curses now the reader is pulled into the emotions but might see more frustration than fury. Good point.

  4. Rhobin, I agree with Skye. "show vs tell" does make a huge difference.

  5. The subtle themes you referred to are also what grabs the attention of the careful reader. Probably also why readers are more empathetic, compassionate people. They experience being other people when they read, and that helps them do it in real life also. You can't hate someone you have empathy for. Bigotry is hard when you can understand someone else's life experience.

  6. Thank you for another interesting topic, Rhobin. Sorry I'm late getting around to reading everyone's posts but must say I've come away with some new perspectives.

  7. Hi Rhobin, thanks for another really interesting topic. I loved your take on it, and I especially liked your point about show and tell. Readers can interpret things differently to how we intended, but I find if you tell them a character is angry, they won't believe it until you actually show that character's anger in action.

  8. This was an excellent post, describing how the reader and author may in synch or not. I think this happens a lot in fiction. And you are so right about showing rather than telling helping the reader understand the scene or not. Great topic, by the way.

  9. You asked some great questions about what the character wants, etc. How every writer should think. The answers are what will drive the plot and the whole novel. Great post.